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Will new Hatfields-McCoys reality series stoke feud?

By Autumn D. F. Hopkins

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Reality television has left a bad taste in the mouths of many West Virginians -- MTV's now defunct "Buckwild," for example.

But author Dean King says the new reality series being filmed about the Hatfields and McCoys will be an uplifting, positive experience for West Virginia. Something along the line of "Duck Dynasty." King and producers from the History channel met with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to assure him the show will reflect well on West Virginia.

News surrounding the show is very secretive. King was limited on what he could discuss. He did say this about the concept:

"Can the Hatfields and McCoys work together to take what they've been doing for generations illegally, can they take their family recipes and springs and all the things it takes to make great 'white lightning,' and do it together?

"They're working together, and it is going to be legal, but that is where the reality part of the show comes in. The viewer doesn't know if it is going to happen or not. It is taking place now. They're real Hatfields and McCoys, and that is the fun."

King said the show will air in late summer, and a distillery will be built in Williamson. Calls to the mayor of Williamson were not returned, so details about the exact location and time frame on construction weren't available.

King explained how he became interested in a reality show about the Hatfields and the McCoys. In his writing, King specializes in what he calls "rugged history." He wrote a book about a group of American sailors shipwrecked and enslaved on coast of Africa in "Skeletons on the Zahara," and a book about the 30 women who marched as part of the Chinese Red Army in "Unbound."

This time King said he wanted to write about something closer to home, but he shied away from the subject of the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. A native Virginian, King has roots deep in West Virginia. Both of his parents were born in the Parkersburg area, and he grew up coming back to West Virginia for holidays and family visits.

King is quick to point out though that being from West Virginia does not ensure you entrance into the hollers and inner sanctums of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, where his latest book, "The Feud," unfolds.

"I thought, eh, it's been done. I looked at Blair Mountain. I looked at other topics. I almost decided not to do it. Then something happened and I thought, 'No! I am going to do this.'"

King said he became enthralled with the newspaper accounts of the time. The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys made national news; the media interest and coverage was intriguing. Headlines of the feud ran side by side with headlines about London's Jack the Ripper.

"The media interest at the time was problematic because the journalists came in from larger out-of-state papers. They are the main source of information we have from the time, and they weren't kind to the people. They were mean-spirited and condescending."

Yet, King said, you can't write off the facts because of the opinions of the reporters. He began his own research, digging into the archives at the Culture Center and all of the firsthand material he could find.

From the start, King said he knew he wanted to simultaneously do a documentary. He approached Wild Eyes Productions, with whom he had worked in the past, and asked them to join him.

When King and the film crew arrived in Mingo County to begin filming a rough cut, the locals were none too welcoming. King, who had his daughter with him, and the crew, were shot at as they explored the rugged terrain.

He was not scared off. Instead, he found all he needed was to make connections. After meeting several locals and earning their trust, King was able to navigate through the families' lore was by way of introduction.

"Once they trust you, then you are in. Then everyone will take care of you; look after you, particularly when you are not from there. They really wanted to take care of me. I felt really welcome after they got to know me."

To repay their kindness and helpfulness, he chose Chief Logan State Park earlier this month to kick off his book tour for "The Feud."

When King initially approached History channel producers, they showed interest in his book but did not want another documentary. Instead, they asked for a reality show. King agreed because he hoped the attention focused on the show and on the families would have a long-term positive effect.

"For the people and for the families, who more and more are proud of their heritage, this is an American story. There was violence in the feud, but that is not what it is all about. It is about these people who are fiercely independent and who were self-reliant and who stood up for themselves. That brought them into conflict, but that is part of our story. It is who we are."

Whether the two families can agree on enough to create joint distillery is still in question, but King thinks the white lightning they could produce "will be a classy product that speaks of quality. Why do you go to the Hatfields and McCoys? Because they're experts."

But King said, the real question is, "Can they get it out of the holler? Can they agree on enough stuff to produce a product?"

That is the reality of reality television.

Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopkins@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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